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Controversial figures who still found success
Elon Musk wearing armour as a Halloween costume and fleing his muscles.
Some people earn and maintain success by playing it safe, saying and doing what’s sure to please the masses. They shy away from controversy and work hard to stay out of situations that might threaten their likability. Often, these people rank high in favorable popularity and attract many devoted, like-minded fans. The strategy works; there’s certainly no shortage of famous, beloved figures who’ve achieved extraordinary success this way.
Other people, however, take a less conventional route. They are typically independent by nature, march to their beat, and are usually unbothered by the opinions of others. They’re fearless in speaking their mind at any given time, sometimes admittedly to their detriment. These individuals have no filter, and there’s no neutral sentiment among the public—people either love or loathe them. Despite the criticism that comes with such success, they have a way of connecting with their followers in ways others don’t understand.
It’s difficult to define what makes a person controversial, but something about them gets under the skin, dividing public opinion and stoking fierce debate. Perhaps they’ve been embroiled in too many scandals to fall back into our good graces; maybe it was all part of their plan all along: to live a life of dissent.
To better understand why the world’s most infamous (and successful) troublemakers are so darn captivating, Stacker assembled a list of celebrities who’ve emerged on the other side of scandal and where they land on the scale of likeability.
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Elon Musk wearing an Occupy Mars t-shirt and waving.
Love him or hate him, Elon Musk knows how to keep people talking. The tech tycoon, known for his work in space and for his social media shenanigans (especially when it comes to one of his latest ventures—acquiring Twitter), has been one of the most controversial figures in recent years. The South African entrepreneur made his fortune with Space X and Tesla.
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Mark Zuckerberg presenting onstage in front of a Facebook background.
The Facebook mogul has been controversial since he first launched his social media site in 2004 at Harvard, where some accused him of being cutthroat. Mark Zuckerberg was called out for questionable privacy boundaries long before the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, and others have lambasted him for purposefully introducing addictive technology to the world. In November 2022, a struggling Facebook, which has been renamed Meta, laid off more than 11,000 employees, with recruiting and business departments feeling the brunt of the impact.
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Johnny Depp in a white suit jacket and dark rimmed glasses.
Johnny Depp courted controversy soon after he first rose to fame in the late 1980s for his role in “21 Jump Street.” By the 1990s, he was making headlines for his rock ‘n’ roll behavior. Depp’s more well-known scandals include getting arrested for trashing a hotel room, suing his former managers, and paying $3 million to shoot Hunter S. Thompson’s ashes out of a cannon.
However, he remained successful throughout most of his career, pulling in more than $650 million for his movies. It wasn’t until domestic abuse allegations surfaced in 2016 that the negative spotlight prompted a downward spiral for the actor, but in the end, he won the defamation suit that nearly cost him everything that he worked for.
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Amber Heard, wearing a red polka dot scarf, waving.
“Aquaman” actress Amber Heard’s bad reputation all began when she accused Johnny Depp of domestic abuse, documenting their relationship in an op-ed in The Washington Post. Depp denied the allegations several times, claiming that Heard had abused him. The heated trial concluded with Depp winning the defamation suit and being awarded $15 million.
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Olympic soccer champion Megan Rapinoe was controversial even before Donald Trump began tweeting about her. With an outspoken, independent attitude, she first made waves in 2012 when she came out as gay and again in 2016 when she kneeled during the national anthem. Most recently, she received flack for dying her hair pink before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup and refusing to sing along during the anthem (though she remained standing this time). However, she went on to win the championship and is currently one of the most recognized names in sports.
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Britney Spears in a black sparkly leotard dance costume onstage.
Britney Spears has a huge fan following that has adored her since her “…Baby One More Time” days. Despite selling more than 100 million records worldwide, the pop star has been no stranger to controversy. In recent years, Britney has been transparent about her conservatorship issues with her father, Jamie Spears, who managed her finances and had control over her assets. The controversial conservatorship lasted for decades until a court hearing in 2021 concluded in favor of Britney regaining control over her finances.
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Kim Kardashian reading a newspaper about herself.
Criticized early on for being “famous for no reason” and often accused of being vapid, tawdry, and attention-seeking, Kim Kardashian’s entire career seems to have been built on controversy. Besides her provocative outfits and social media presence, which some have called narcissistic, Kardashian was involved in numerous scandals, including promoting appetite-suppressing lollipops, dressing as the Virgin Mary for a line of candles, and allegedly darkening her face for an ad (which resembled blackface to some). Though millions love her, many of her detractors are passionate enough to suggest she staged her robbery at gunpoint in Paris. She’s made headlines recently for her highly public divorce from Kanye West.
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Nikola Tesla sitting in a chair in his lab in front of a contraption shooting electricity from all sides.
The man who invented the alternating current (of AC/DC fame) led a life full of controversy and had many detractors, from those who thought he was a crazy dreamer to others who played down his contributions. His famous feud with Thomas Edison has divided scientists even today into “Team Tesla” and “Team Edison” camps. Still, in addition to the alternating current, he’s credited with inventing X-rays, wireless transmission, and the induction motor, among other things.
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Justin Bieber sitting in a studio wearing a blue baseball cap, blue t-shirt and pants.
Justin Bieber has a huge music career, but he’s also been the center of several controversies. In 2015, the pop star was found guilty of assault and reckless driving. In 2019, his former choreographer Emma Portner accused him of “degrading women.” In 2021, Bieber faced backlash again for cultural appropriation when he posted a photo of himself sporting short dreadlocks, a repeat of his 2016 snafu.
Barack Obama in a black suit at a podium in front of the American flag.
As the first African American president of the United States, Barack Obama was a controversial figure whose detractors often highlighted the racial divide in America. His campaigns were marked by debates about his birth certificate and controversies over things like his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. His policies on health care (aka “Obamacare”), the Great Recession bailout, and his approach to military presence in Afghanistan were also frequently debated. However, he still managed to get elected twice and maintained an average approval rating of 47.9%.
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Amy Schumer at a podium in a green dress.
Irreverent comedian Amy Schumer has never shied away from controversy and dark humor, beginning with her off-Broadway play, a comedy about breast cancer. Over the years, she’s received criticism for numerous comedy bits and comments she’s made personally, ranging from sex to body image to Donald Trump. “I like tackling the stuff nobody else talks about,” she told the St. Louis-Post Dispatch. “Like the darkest, most serious thing about yourself. I talk about life and sex and personal stories and stuff everybody can relate to, and some can’t.”
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Kanye West in a black leather jacket, gold chain and large dark sunglasses.
Kanye West, most known for his music, has found himself amid controversy over the years, with even calm, cool, and collected President Barack Obama calling out the rapper and producer for being a “jackass” after West interrupted Taylor Swift’s speech at the 2009 MTV Awards.
In October 2022, it all went downhill for “Ye,” the moniker the fallen rapper goes by these days. That month, Ye had held a private show during Paris fashion week where he wore a “White Lives Matter” shirt, a slogan many saw as a racist response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Southern Poverty Law Centre, a hate group tracker, has identified White Lives Matter as a neo-Nazi group. Interestingly, two Black radio hosts currently own the White Lives Matter trademark.
Ye went on to post antisemitic remarks on social media and voiced them in interviews, resulting in several companies cutting ties with the rapper, including Adidas, who collaborated with Ye on his Yeezy shoe collection. Due to his latest string of scandals in 2022, Ye, who rose to billionaire status in 2020, saw his net worth plummet to $400 million in a matter of weeks.
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Tom Cruise in a blue button down shirt.
Hollywood hunk Tom Cruise has been controversial for many things during his long career, including his past relationship with actress Katie Holmes (a romance that prompted him to jump up and down on Oprah’s couch). But the most infamous and consistently controversial subject is his involvement with the Church of Scientology, which has prompted opinion pieces, news specials, online gossip, and even full-length documentaries.
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Muhammad Ali hovering over his opponent in the ring.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali wasn’t only famous for being the heavyweight champion of the world. In 1967, he refused military induction during the Vietnam War, prompting a widespread backlash from Americans and others who felt he was neglecting his patriotic duty. Ali cited religious beliefs but was fined and sentenced to five years in jail, though he never served time.
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Cardi B posing in a black and white suit and hat.
Rather than running from controversy, rapper Cardi B seems to thrive on it. Before launching her rap career, she was a controversial figure on Instagram and later on VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop: New York,” the reality TV show that catapulted her into the spotlight. As a former adult entertainer with a fiery personality, she had a host of detractors. Nonetheless, she achieved enormous success, becoming the first solo female artist to win a Grammy for Best Rap Album and bringing in an estimated net worth of about $40 million.
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Paris Hilton in a white lace dress and white sunglasses posing with a small dog.
Paris Hilton’s family is known for their wealth and connection to Hilton Hotels & Resorts. During the early 2000s, Hilton rose to fame as a socialite and was the subject of several tabloids and websites for her party lifestyle on the reality TV series “The Simple Life.” In 2003, a sex tape surfaced of Hilton and her then-boyfriend Rick Salomon, making her even more famous. In 2012, Hilton was heard on an audio recording making derogatory comments about gay men who use an app for sexual encounters; the situation was so murky her publicist had to step in to do damage control.
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Ellen DeGeneres in all white posing for an event.
When comedian Ellen DeGeneres came out as a lesbian in 1997, it caused a major stir, especially when the character she played on her sitcom “Ellen” came out too. The move made her the first openly gay lead character on a prime-time TV show and caused many fans to jump ship. In 2020, “The Ellen DeGeneres” show also faced criticism for fostering a toxic workplace, allegations she addressed and apologized for during the show’s 18th season premiere. A year later, however, the talk show ended after almost two decades.
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David Bowie onstage singing and playing guitar.
From heavy cocaine use and pro-fascist comments in the 1970s (which he later blamed on his alter ego, the Thin White Duke) to criticism over a religious-themed music video as recently as 2013, David Bowie was never short on controversy. While the late rocker’s detractors criticized his eccentricity, Bowie’s unapologetically unique personality, fashion sense, and gender fluidity—even before it was mainstream—appealed to fans everywhere. “Bowie was so defiantly, gloriously oddball, so utterly unafraid of what society might think of him… that he made it OK for other people to be different as well,” Kaite Welsh wrote for The Telegraph.
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Hilary Clinton smiling onstage.
Whether it’s Benghazi, Uranium One, or the use of a private email server to conduct official business, controversy has swirled around Hillary Clinton throughout her political tenure, but even before the former presidential nominee held public office, she was a fiery figure, beginning at Wellesley College when she publicly lambasted a Republican senator, landing in Life magazine as a result. Her policies have also been controversial, particularly regarding health care, social security, and foreign affairs.
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Lindsay Lohan sitting on a couch smiling.
Lindsay Lohan, at one point, was celebrated for her roles in Disney films such as “The Parent Trap” in 1998 and “Freaky Friday” in 2003. She soon, however, became an insurance liability on production sets as she battled drug and alcohol addictions. She was a suspect in a $100,000 Hollywood Hills jewelry theft—a case that was rejected entirely due to lack of evidence. She was also sentenced to 120 days in jail for stealing a $2,500 necklace from a jewelry store in Venice, California.
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Quentin Tarantino in a plaid shirt.
Quentin Tarantino makes controversial movies, says controversial things, and courts controversy wherever he goes. The prolific filmmaker’s movies have been criticized for being racist, misogynistic, overly graphic, overly violent, and a host of other negative things. He’s received flack for an on-set car accident involving Uma Thurman and for comments that seemed to defend Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski. However, he remains one of the most successful and well-known filmmakers of the modern era.
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Yoshiro Nakamatsu, wearing a gray pinstripe suit with a yellow tie and red bow, holding a shoe invention.
With a whopping 3,300 patents under his belt, Japanese inventor Yoshiro Nakamatsu is undoubtedly successful yet also controversial and eccentric. He reportedly spends time in a 24-karat gold “Calm Room” at his home to block radio waves that he believes are harmful to his imagination, and he dives underwater to spark creativity, recording ideas with a waterproof memo device. People have called him crazy, weird, and outlandish for some of his inventions, most recently for a self-defense wig for Donald Trump.
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Lady Gaga in a gold choker necklace.
Between wearing a meat dress to an awards ceremony, using Catholic imagery in music videos, and getting into a lawsuit with an ex-boyfriend, Lady Gaga is always making headlines for controversial reasons. But her wild and eccentric ways have by no means halted her success. The singer boasts 13 Grammys, two Golden Globes, and an Oscar—not to mention a boatload of money.
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George Carlin onstage.
Funnyman George Carlin was a classic example of a guy who knew he was controversial and couldn’t care less. The controversy was part of the stand-up comedian’s brand. Carlin’s humor included jokes about a variety of taboo subjects. One of his most famous routines was called “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” In 1972, he was arrested on obscenity charges after performing the piece at a Milwaukee festival.
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Joan of Arc
A drawing of Joan of Arc in armour with a sword.
Joan of Arc was one of the most controversial figures of her time. The rebellious young peasant girl led the French army to victory with no formal military training but was mocked by detractors and arrested by the Burgundians for wearing men’s clothes, among other alleged crimes. They interrogated her and ultimately burned the young martyr at the stake. On top of her sweeping military victory, she became one of the world’s most famous historical figures and was canonized as a saint in 1920.
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Che Guevara sitting at a desk smoking a cigar.
Ché Guevara was many things: a writer, physician, and a top communist figure in the Cuban Revolution who became a guerilla leader in South America. Born Ernesto Guevara de la Serna in Argentina, he was charismatic but also had inhumane tendencies.
After meeting Cuban leader Fidel Castro in the 1950s and obtaining Cuban citizenship in 1959, Guevara was soon in charge of managing executions at La Cabaña, a fortresslike prison. It’s been said that a few hundred people were executed under Guevara’s regimen. Despite his anti-American political views, some see Guevara as a freedom fighter who defied the odds in his rise to power.
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Eminem dancing in black and white onstage.
Eminem was one of the most controversial rappers of his day—a figure whom most people had strong opinions about one way or the other. Some accused him of promoting misogyny, homophobia, and violence in his graphic music; others called him a lyrical genius. He often spoofed the controversy in his music and was prone to seeming publicity stunts such as performing a duet with Elton John at the 2001 Grammy Awards.
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Dennis Rodman in red.
On and off the court, Dennis Rodman’s eccentric personality has long made him a contentious figure. As an NBA player, he famously showed up to games with wild hairstyles, tattoos, and piercings, frequently getting ejected for verbal and physical altercations. Off the court, he wore a wedding dress to a book launch, claiming he wanted to marry himself. He has, on several occasions, met with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, whom he called a “friend for life.”
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Donald Trump in a black suit at a podium in front of an American flag.
From sexual assault allegations to the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape to the investigation into Russian election meddling, former U.S. President Donald Trump seems unable to escape scandal and controversy. Even before his presidency, the real estate mogul was a controversial figure as a businessman and reality TV star. A Forbes estimate of his net worth in November 2022 placed it at $3.2 billion, and he currently holds one of the world’s most powerful positions—clearly finding success in infamy.
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Mae West lying on a chaise lounge in a velvet gown and hat.
Mae West was the kind of lady who epitomized the phrase “a woman before her time.” The Hollywood entertainer was born in 1893 yet didn’t hesitate to do things like write provocative screenplays, star in sultry movies, and pose for sexy pinup posters. She was known for her suggestive quotes and double entendres (e.g., “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it”). Her brazenness earned her much criticism and controversy, yet she remained rich, famous, and hugely successful.
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Steve Jobs in a black turtleneck and jeans onstage in front of the iphone.
Steve Jobs was controversial for the way he managed his business as well as for his personal life. The Apple founder was a perfectionist who demanded much from his employees and often fired people without notice. For years, he denied paternity of his first child (while she and her mother lived on welfare), and at one point, he went as far as to swear in court that he was “sterile and infertile.” All these things made Jobs a controversial figure, yet he was also hugely successful—a billionaire who was called a genius by fans and shaped the landscape of modern technology.
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Hugh Grant smiling in front of a background poster of himself.
Hugh Grant suffered his share of controversies, the biggest of which occurred in 1995 when he was arrested with a prostitute he picked up on Sunset Strip. Embarrassing details of the encounter emerged, and Grant struggled to save his relationship with longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Hurley. Things were not looking good for the British actor. However, he rebounded, going on to star in more than a dozen features, including career-defining hits like “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and “Love Actually,” both of which he made after the scandal.
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The father of evolution didn’t enjoy a warm embrace from the scientific community when he first published his theories. Some criticized him for being anti-religious, particularly devout Christians who felt Darwin’s theories threatened their biblical worldview, and many scientific thinkers lambasted his methodology. Nevertheless, “On the Origin of Species” sold millions of copies and remains a definitive piece of scientific literature 200 years later.
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Roseanne Barr signing autographs on the red carpet.
From backlash over her screeching rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” during her sitcom’s original run to getting fired from the reboot for posting racist tweets, comedian Roseanne Barr has been a magnet for controversy since her career started. She once posed as Adolf Hitler for a photo while holding a platter of “burnt Jew cookies” and another time was sued by the parents of George Zimmerman (the man who killed Trayvon Martin) after tweeting their home address. Still, the comedian has won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, accumulating a net worth estimated at $80 million.
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Megyn Kelly smiling in a blue coat.
The one-time Fox News host-turned-NBC anchor was fired from the latter after making comments about blackface. Megyn Kelly is no stranger to controversy. She’s held an ongoing feud with Donald Trump and has interviewed controversial figures such as Vladimir Putin and reality star Jim Bob Duggar (who was dealing with his son’s molestation allegations at the time).
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Madonna in a black sequin dress.
The pop star began her career in the 1980s with a public image based on pushing boundaries and being provocative. In her heyday, she wore cone-shaped bras, lapped up milk off the floor, and burned crosses in videos, among other odd acts. But none of these things stopped her from becoming one of the most successful, well-recognized pop singers in history.
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George W. Bush
George W. Bush in front of the blue White House sign.
The 43rd U.S. president’s time in office was marked by extreme swings in public opinion that broke records on both ends. After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush’s approval rating peaked at 90%—the highest in Gallup history. But by the time he left office, they had plummeted to an abysmal 22%, the lowest final rating for an outgoing president in the history of the polling. Controversies that dogged Bush’s presidency included Guantanamo Bay, Hurricane Katrina, and the unpopular war in Iraq.
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Between Charlie Sheen’s wild and reckless drug use to his HIV-positive status disclosure in 2015, the “Two and a Half Men” actor’s name is practically synonymous with controversy. After starring in the Oscar-winning film “Platoon” in 1986, the fast-living star quickly began accumulating controversies which continued for decades. Among his lowlights included a $50,000 tab with famous Hollywood madam Heidi Fleiss, numerous stints in rehab, a handful of assault charges, and at one point accidentally shooting his fiance in the arm.
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Colin Kaepernick kneeling at a game.
Former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sparked controversy in 2016 when he began sitting during the national anthem (which eventually morphed into kneeling) to draw attention to racial inequality in the U.S. Fans were immediately divided—some praised the athlete for his commitment to social justice while others, including former President Donald Trump, accused him of being unpatriotic. He could not get a contract in 2017 and later filed a grievance against the league for colluding to keep him out. Nevertheless, the athlete emerged relatively unscathed from the controversy. He landed a major deal with Nike and scored an NFL settlement estimated between $60 and $80 million.
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Abraham Lincoln in a suit sitting in a chair.
Abraham Lincoln, also known as Honest Abe, may be credited with abolishing slavery in the South, but his legacy is somewhat complicated. In 1862, Lincoln held a “Deputation of Free Negroes” meeting at the White House, where he hosted five prominent Black Americans. During the meeting, Lincoln alluded to Black Americans causing the Civil War, stating their presence alone was cause for division. “Whether it is right or wrong I need not discuss, but this physical difference is a great disadvantage to us both, as I think your race suffer very greatly, many of them by living among us, while ours suffer from your presence,” Lincoln reportedly said in the meeting.
He even suggested settling formerly enslaved people in Panama. Land laws under his regime, such as the Homestead Act of 1862, negatively impacted Native Americans, pushing them further into reservations away from their original homeland. The Dakota War of 1862, which also happened under Lincoln’s watch, resulted in the hangings of 38 Dakota warriors.
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Benazir Bhutto talking into press microphones.
Benazir Bhutto—the daughter of onetime Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—was one of the most controversial figures in Pakistan history and the Muslim world. After her father, who founded the Pakistan Peoples Party, was imprisoned following a military coup, she and her mother published a book encouraging citizens to demonstrate. They were later both imprisoned themselves, and her father was executed. She remained an activist despite her detractors, eventually becoming prime minister herself—the first woman ever to lead a Muslim nation. She was assassinated in 2007—but not before leaving an indelible mark on Pakistan and the Muslim world.
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Michael Jackson in a black suit and sunglasses.
Michael Jackson’s music and dance videos were controversial even before child molestation allegations or hanging his baby off a balcony. Before that, he was a controversial figure for doing things like grabbing his crotch during performances, inventing wild new dance moves (such as the moonwalk), marrying Elvis’s daughter, and dramatically changing his appearance. The 2019 documentary “Leaving Neverland” brought new attention to the child molestation scandal, reinvigorating the controversy around the King of Pop.
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Susan B. Anthony
Susan B. Anthony sitting at a desk.
Susan B. Anthony was perceived as extremely controversial for her views at a time when slavery was still legal and women weren’t allowed to vote. Anthony collected signatures for anti-slavery campaigns as a teen, and she helped lead the charge for women’s voting rights when she was a young adult. While many supported her, Anthony had countless more detractors. Still, she paved the way for one of the most significant advances for women in history, dying just 14 years before the 19th Amendment was passed.
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Beginning with his in-your-face late-night show “Politically Incorrect” in the 1990s, where the whole idea was to say unpopular things at the time, left-leaning comedian Bill Maher has long courted controversy—it seems to be the fabric of his brand. It’s hard to find an episode of his current HBO show “Real Time with Bill Maher” that doesn’t produce a controversial clip, many of which turn into viral YouTube videos. Among his most famous controversies were interviewing alt-right figure Milo Yiannopoulos, claiming that “millions” of Muslims supported the Charlie Hebdo attacks, and using the N-word on TV, the latter of which came close to getting his show canceled.
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Albert Einstein in a long dark coat.
Albert Einstein rose to fame in 1905 after his theory of relativity transformed our understanding of space and time. Einstein was the first to confirm that “no object could travel faster than the speed of light.” Although Einstein received a Nobel Prize in physics, he was outspoken about other matters besides science and used his platform to address social injustices, particularly related to Black Americans (though early travel diary entries reveal racist comments about Asians). In interviews, Einstein advocated against nationalism and militarism.
Born in Germany to Ashkenazi Jewish parents, Einstein was sometimes a target of antisemitism. In 1933, shortly after the Nazi takeover in Germany, the renowned scientist renounced his German citizenship and settled in the U.S.